Crouching Tiger by Ying Chang Compestine is the rare picture book that shows a grandfather imparting a valued skill to his young grandson. It is a quiet, contemplative book, similar to the gentle martial art of tai chi that it portrays. Children like Ming Da, the grandson, are generally more impressed with fast and agile movements, but I think they will be drawn in by the mystic power of tai chi with fascinating names like “White Crane Spreads Its Wings” and “Snake Creeps Through the Grass.” Unfortunately, the drawings cannot really convey the mesmerizing beauty of tai chi’s movements.
Many young children will relate to an initial hesitancy when a grandparent seldom seen visits from their home far away. Ming Da has mixed emotions when Grandpa arrives from China and at first there is a cool respect, but no real warmth between them. This may be disconcerting for American readers used to more exuberant grandparents. It is refreshingly different from many picture books that portray older men as duffers—grumpy or forgetful.
Grandfather demonstrates the need for discipline and perseverance in the practice of tai chi’s movements and wants him to recognize his heritage. He refuses to call him by his American name, saying, “Your Chinese name is Ming Da. You are Chinese as well as American.” At times Ming Da is embarrassed and worried what his friends will think seeing them together.
However, Ming Da is impressed after seeing his grandfather save a woman on the street from a worker’s board about to smack her in the head. “In a smooth motion, Grandpa crouched like a tiger, swept up a leg, and kicked the board, breaking it neatly in half.” They continue tai chi in the garden, his stamina improves, and Ming Da is invited to join the big New Year’s parade in China Town with his Grandpa.
In China Town there is jubilation and dance and fireworks—the beautiful illustrations by Yan Nascimbene take on even more color and vibrancy offset by the blackness of the night. It is obvious that Grandpa, addressed as Master Chang, is greatly respected by the people surrounding them, and in fact, trained the people dancing as lions. We see another culture’s respect for their elders.
Ming Da is excited by his Chinese heritage and at the end of the book both respect and love have grown in grandfather and grandson. That now warm connection is shown when they walk home hand in hand.
Next Steps to Intergenerational Understanding
Grandpa passes on his skill to his grandson in Crouching Tiger (Candlewick Press 2011; ages 6-9), and also the traditions of their family and Chinese culture. Reading this book with children provides an opportunity to talk about their own family stories, heritage and traditions. Perhaps they could write down a family story with input from their grandparents.
In an article in The New York Times, “The Stories That Bind Us,” author Bruce Feiler asks, “What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?” He shares the findings of Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist at Emory University, who has researched the importance of developing strong family narratives. Children with strong self-confidence have what Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush call a strong ‘intergenerational self.’ They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.” Dr. Duke recommends that families share traditions and stories as important ways to build that intergenerational self.